Friday, January 28, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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On course on affordability, off course on experimentation

Special to The Seattle Times

Eastlake Bar & Grill

2947 Eastlake Ave. E., Seattle; 206-957-7777




Reservations: accepted.

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-midnight every day.

Prices: lunches $5.99-$11.99; dinner starters $1.50-$8.99; soups and salads $2.99-$12.99; sandwich, pasta and seafood entrees $8.99-$13.99; steaks $22.99-$24.99.

Wine: limited list.

Parking: free in lot.

Sound: conversation friendly.

Who should go: budget-minded folks who favor a game and a cocktail with dinner.

Full bar / credit cards: AE, MC, V / smoking in bar only / no obstacles to access.

For every restaurant critic, there's a quandary at the outset of any new review: By what standard ought a restaurant be deemed a good restaurant?

Take Eastlake Bar & Grill, a makeover of Sam's Steakhouse on Eastlake by restaurateur Larry Hamlin, consultant/investor Arnold Shain and operating partner John Schmidt. Sam's owners Hamlin and Shain determined that the neighborhood called for a more affordable drop-in joint than the rising price of beef would allow. So they brought in Schmidt — co-founder of the great Taco del Mar chain, co-owner of Irish pubs (The Irish Emigrant, Paddy Coyne's), co-operator of the affordable neighborhood haunt Greenlake Bar & Grill — to ratchet down prices and diversify Sam's menu.

The result? A kissin' cousin to Greenlake Bar & Grill, right down to its nearly identical menu, aiming a straight middlebrow pitch to those who want a cigarette in the bar, a cocktail with dinner, a TV to watch in the corner — and a whole lot of food on their plates.

If this all seems like a throwback to the way restaurants used to be, before foodies began setting kitchen agendas — you're right. Eastlake Bar & Grill is the sort of place where a ribbon of smoke or the punch line of a loud joke might waft over from the bar. Even its smart décor — lots of oak-toned wood, mauve upholstery, framed photographs of regulars and palm fronds — evokes the '70s. (Can you spell Duke's?).

So back to the quandary. Does Eastlake Bar & Grill's new downmarket slant critically disqualify it as a worthy restaurant? Not at all. Its lackluster, carelessly executed food does.

More's the pity, as Seattle could use more basic, value-oriented joints like Eastlake Bar & Grill is aiming to be. Especially ones with the whole panorama of North Lake Union's boatyards unfurled beyond its wall of windows and broad deck.

Indeed, a lot of the right ingredients are in play here. In keeping with the place's democratic mandate, both lunch and dinner menus abound with scripted crowd pleasers — buttermilk-fried calamari ($8.99) and creamy rock-crab artichoke dip ($8.99) among the starters; a lineup of soups and salads and grilled sandwiches; lunch entrees like chicken jambalaya ($9.99) and grilled chicken quesadilla ($7.99); dinners like mesquite-smoked salmon ($12.99) and Mom's meat loaf ($10.99) and rock crab fettucine ($13.99). Prices are affordable across the board. Service is quick enough, friendly enough, proficient enough.

And if you order some of the simpler items — the cheddar cheese burger ($8.99) for instance, grilled to order with chipotle mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato, onion and terrific shoestring fries; or the shrimp Cobb salad lunch special ($9.99), with its generous heaps of mini tiger prawns, avocado, bacon, tomato, cucumber, red onions and blue cheese — you'll likely leave satisfied enough.

It's when you venture into less straightforward culinary territory that execution plunges. A coconut-prawns appetizer ($6.99 at lunch, $8.99 at dinner) featured overcooked shrimp in casings dessertlike in their sweetness, with cloying orange-jalapeño sauce alongside.

A California turkey club ($8.99), featuring bacon, avocado, provolone and vegetables on a ciabatta roll, included so little lubricating basil mayonnaise, swallowing became a challenge.

At dinner, a mesquite-smoked pork chop ($11.99) was overcharred (virtually every meat or seafood dish we encountered, from the chicken Szechuan lettuce wrap ($7.99) to the sautéed sea scallop penne ($8.99), featured overcooked meat), and arrived alongside an intriguing bacon-onion spaetzle dish that turned out to be dry and poorly seasoned. "This tastes like something I'd make at home," said my companion sadly.

The appetizer menu delivered the most solace — a boon to those who come for one of Eastlake Bar & Grill's two happy hours (4 p.m.-6 p.m. and 10 p.m.-2 a.m., every day). The Mediterranean-style platter ($7.99) featured very good baba ghanouj and a tasty tomato spread, among other things, and the sundried tomato-feta spread offered with the oiled, grilled rustic bread appetizer ($4.49) was lush. A fried cheese quesadilla ($6.99) actually managed to taste somewhat healthy, accented as it was with fresh spinach, sautéed mushrooms and red onions.

But still, it was ... dull. Pastas were lackluster; salad dressings underseasoned across the board. (When you long to salt your salad — you've got a problem.)

Eastlake Bar & Grill is in the business of delivering uncomplicated American food — noble endeavor — and its kitchen is clearly capable of preparing it solidly. Problem is ... it too seldom does.

Kathryn Robinson

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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